Shoot the Moon
White men in suits follow Felipe Lopez everywhere he goes. Felipe lives in Mott Haven, in the South Bronx. He is a junior at Rice High School, which is on the corner of 124th Street and Lenox Avenue, in Harlem, and he plays guard for the school basketball team, the Rice Raiders. The white men are ubiquitous. They rarely miss one of Felipe’s games or tournaments. They have absolute recall of his best minutes of play. They are authorities on his physical condition. They admire his feet, which are big and pontoon-shaped, and his wrists, which have a loose, silky motion. Not long ago, I sat with the white men at a game between Rice and All Hallows High School. My halftime entertainment was listening to a debate between two of them — a college scout and a Westchester contractor who is a high-school basketball fan — about whether Felipe had grown a half inch over Christmas break. “I know this kid,” the scout said as the second half started. “A half inch is not something I would miss.” The white men believe that Felipe is the best high-school basketball player in the country. They often compare him to Michael Jordan, and are betting he will become one of the greatest basketball players to emerge from New York City since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This conjecture provides them with suspended, savory excitement and a happy premonition. Following Felipe is like hanging around with someone you think is going to win the lottery someday.
At the moment, Felipe is six feet five. He would like to be six feet seven. His shoes are size 12. He buys his pants at big-and-tall-men stores. His ears, which are small and high-set, look exaggeratedly tiny, because he keeps his hair shaved close to his skull. He has blackish-brown eyes and a big, vivid tongue — I know this only because his tongue sometimes sticks out when he is playing hard, and against his skin, which is very dark, it looks like a pink pennant. His voice is slurry; all his words have round edges. He is as skinny as a bean pole, and has long shins and thin forearms and sharp, chiselled knees. His hands are gigantic. Walking down the street, he gets a lot of looks because of his height, but he is certainly not a horse of a kid — not one of those man-size boys who fleshed out in fifth grade and whose adult forms are in place by the time they’re thirteen. He is all outline: he doesn’t look like a stretched-out average-size person — he looks like a sketch of a huge person which hasn’t yet been colored in.
On the court, Felipe’s body seems unusually well organized. His movements are quick and liquid. I have seen him sail horizontally through thin air. High-school players are often rough and lumbering, and they mostly shoot flat-footed, but Felipe has an elegant, buoyant game. He floats around the edge of the court and then springs on the ball and sprints away. When he moves toward the basket, it looks as if he were speed-skating, and then, suddenly, he rises in the air, lingers, and shoots. His shot is smooth and lovely, with a loopy arc. Currently, he averages twenty-six points and nine rebounds per game, and he is within striking distance of the all-time high-school scoring record for New York State. He has great court vision, soft hands, a brisk three-point shot, and the speed to take the ball inside and low. He is usually the fastest man in the fast break. He can handle the ball like a point guard, and he beats bigger players defensively, because of his swiftness and his body control. When he is not on a court, though, the way he walks is complicated and sloppy. He seems to walk this way on purpose, to make light of his size and disguise his grace.
Before I met Felipe, people told me I would find him cuddly. Everything I knew about him — that he is a boy, that he is a teenage boy, that he is a six-foot-five teenage-boy jock — made this pretty hard to believe, but it turns out to be true. He is actually the sweetest person I know. At some point during our time together, it occurred to me that he could be a great basketball hustler, because he seems naive and eager — the ideal personality for attracting competitive big shots on the basketball court. It happens that he is not the least bit of a hustler. But he is also not nearly as naive and eager as he appears. He once told me that he likes to make people think of him as a clown, because then they will never accuse him of being a snob. He also said that he likes to be friendly to everyone, so that no one will realize he’s figuring out whom he can trust.
Felipe spoke no English at all when he moved to New York from the Dominican Republic, four years ago, but he quickly picked up certain phrases, including “crash the boards,” “he’s bugging out,” “get the hell out of the paint,” and “oh, my goodness.” Now he speaks English comfortably, with a rich Dominican accent — the words tumble and click together, like stones being tossed in a polisher. “Oh, my goodness” remains his favorite phrase. It is a utility expression that reveals his modesty, his manners, his ingenuousness, and his usual state of mind, which is one of pleasant and guileless surprise at the remarkable nature of his life. I have heard him use it to comment on the expectation that he will someday be a rich and famous player in the N.B.A., and on the fact that he was recently offered half a million dollars by people from Spain to put aside his homework and come play in their league, and on the fact that he is already considered a seminal national export by citizens of the Dominican Republic, who are counting on him to be the first Dominican in the N.B.A., and on the fact that he is growing so fast that he once failed to recognize his own pants. Sometimes he will use the phrase in circumstances where his teammates and friends might be inclined to say something more dynamic. One night this winter, I was sitting around at school with Felipe and his teammates, watching a videotape of old Michael Jordan highlights. The tape had been edited for maximum excitement, and most of the boys on the team were responding with more and more baroque constructions of foul language. At one point, Jordan was shown leaping past the Celtics center Robert Parish, and someone said, “Yo, feature that, bro! He’s busting the Chief’s face.”
“Busting his fucking face,” another one said.
“Busting his goddam big-ass face.”
“He’s got it going on. Now Jordan’s going to bust his foul-loving big-ass mama’s-boy dope black ass.”
On the tape, Jordan slammed the ball through the hoop and Parish crumpled to the floor. While the other boys were applauding and swearing, Felipe moved closer to the television and then said, admiringly, “Oh, my goodness.”
Felipe’s life is unusually well populated. He is very close to his family. He is named Luis Felipe, after his father. His older brother Anthony is one of the managers of the Rice High School team. Anthony is a square-shouldered, avid man of twenty-five who played amateur basketball in the Dominican Republic and in New York until his ankle was badly injured in a car accident. Until last month, when he was laid off, he worked at a Manhattan printshop and had a boss who appreciated basketball and tolerated the time Anthony spent with the team. Anthony is rarely away from Felipe’s side, and when he is there he is usually peppering him with directions and commentary in a hybrid of Spanish and English: “Felipe, mal, muy mal! Como estas you go so aggressive to a lay-up?” A couple of times a month, Anthony makes the rounds of Felipe’s teachers to see if his B average is holding up. “If he’s not doing well, then I go back and let my people know,” Anthony says. “It’s nice, it’s beautiful to be a superstar, but if he doesn’t work hard he doesn’t play.” Once, Felipe’s father forbade him to travel to a tournament, because he had neglected to wash the dishes. This made Felipe cry, but in hindsight he is philosophical about it. “He was right,” he says. “I didn’t do my dishes.” Felipe is also close to Lou DeMello, his coach at Rice, and to Dave Jones, his coach with the Gauchos, a basketball organization in the Bronx which he plays for during the summer, and to Louis d’Almeida, the founder of the Gauchos. Felipe says he sometimes gets basketball advice from his mother, Carmen, and from Maura Beattie, a teacher at Rice who tutors him in English. Neither of them plays. “You know what, though?” Felipe says. “They know something.” His primary hobby is sleeping, but his other pastime is talking on the phone for hours to his girlfriend, who is an American, a resident of Brooklyn, and a basketball fan.
Sometimes his life seems overpopulated. He has so far received four crates of letters from college coaches and recruiters pitching woo at him. Some make seductive mention of the large seating capacities of their arenas. Basketball-camp directors call regularly, saying that they would like Felipe Lopez to be in attendance. Officials of Puerto Rico’s summer basketball league have requested the honor of his presence this summer. There are corporate marketing executives who would very much like to be his friends. Not everyone crowding into his life wishes him well. There are people who might wittingly or unwittingly mislead him. Felipe has been warned by his father, for example, never to have sex without a condom, because some girls who pretend to like him might really have appraised him as a lucrative paternity suit. Last year, Felipe and another player were invited to appear in a Nintendo television commercial, and the commercial nearly cost them their college athletic eligibility, because no one had warned them that accepting money for a commercial was against N. C.A. A. regulations. There are people who are jealous of Felipe. There are coaches whose hearts he has broken, because they’re not at one of the colleges Felipe is interested in — Florida State, Syracuse, St. John’s, Seton Hall, North Carolina, Georgia Tech, U. C.L. A., Indiana, Arizona, Ohio State, and Kansas. There are coaches who put aside all other strategy except Keep Felipe Lopez Away from the Ball. Some opponents will go out of their way to play him hard. There are kids on his own team who have bitter moments about Felipe. And there are contrarians, who would like to get in early on a backlash and look clairvoyant and hype-resistant by declaring him, at only eighteen and only a junior in high school, already overrated. His response to all this is to be nice to everyone. I have never seen him angry, or even peeved, but when he isn’t playing well his entire body droops and he looks completely downcast. It is an alarming sight, because he looks so hollowed out anyway.
“Wait till this kid gets a body,” Coach DeMello likes to say. During practice, DeMello will sometimes jump up and down in front of Felipe and yell, “Felipe! Make yourself big!” The best insult I ever heard DeMello hurl at Felipe was during a practice one afternoon when Felipe was playing lazily. DeMello strode onto the court, looked up at Felipe, and said acidly, “You’re six-five, but you’re trapping like you’re five-eleven.” Anthony Lopez can hardly wait until Felipe gets a body, so sometimes during the off-season he will take him to the steep stairway at the 155th Street subway station, in the Bronx, and make him run up and down the hundred and thirty steps a few times to try to speed the process along. Felipe is less than crazy about this exercise, although he appreciates the advantages that more bulk might give him: “When I first came here, I could tell the guys were looking at me and thinking, Who is this skinny kid? Then they would say, ‘Hey, let’s’ — excuse my language — ‘bust his ass.’ ”
Felipe’s body is an unfinished piece of work. It gets people thinking. Tom Konchalski, a basketball scout who follows high schools in the Northeast, suggested recently that if Felipe ever wanted to give up basketball he could be a world-class sprinter. Coach DeMello said to me once that, much as he hated to admit it, he thought Felipe had the perfect pitcher’s body. Felipe’s mother told me that even though Felipe is now a fast-break expert, she thought he should sharpen his ability to penetrate to the basket and go for the big finish — say, a windmill slam dunk. I once asked her whose style of play she wanted Felipe to emulate, and she pointed to a picture of Michael Jordan and said, in Spanish, “If he would eat more, he could be like the man who jumps.”
Felipe’s father, who played amateur baseball in the Dominican Republic, thought he saw in his son the outlines of a first baseman, and steered Felipe toward baseball when he was little. But Felipe was hit in the nose by a wild throw, and decided that, in spite of its popularity in the Dominican Republic and the success Dominican ballplayers have had in the United States, baseball was not his game. Maura Beattie, his English tutor, is an excellent tennis player, and one day, just for fun, she took Felipe with her to the courts. She was curious to see if someone with Felipe’s build and abilities could master a racquet sport. He beat her. It was the first time he’d held a tennis racquet in his life. Another time, the two of them went to play miniature golf in Rockaway, and Felipe, who had never held a putter before, made a hole in one. Some of this prowess can be attributed to tremendous physical coordination and the biomechanical advantages of being tall and thin and limber. Felipe Lopez is certainly a born athlete. But he may also be one of those rarer cases — a person who is just born lucky, whose whole life seems an effortless conveyance of dreams, and to whom other people’s dreams adhere. This aura of fortune is so powerful that it is easy to forget that for the time being, and for a while longer, Felipe Lopez is still just an immigrant teenager who lives in a scary neighborhood in the South Bronx and goes to high school in Harlem, where bad things happen every day.
Currently, there are five hundred and eighteen thousand male high-school basketball players in the United States. Of these, only nineteen thousand will end up on college teams — not even four per cent. Less than one per cent will play for Division One colleges — the most competitive. The present N.B.A. roster has three hundred and sixty-seven players, and each year only forty or fifty new players are drafted. What these numbers forebode is disappointment for many high-school basketball players. That disappointment is disproportionate among black teenagers. A recent survey of high-school students by Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society reported that fifty-nine per cent of black teenage athletes thought they would continue to play on a college team, compared with thirty-nine per cent of white teen-agers. Only sixteen per cent of the white athletes expected that they would play for the pros; forty-three per cent of the blacks expected that they would, and nearly half of all the kids said they thought it would be easier for black males to become professional basketball players than to become lawyers or doctors. Scouts have told me that everyone on the Rice team will probably be able to get a free college education by playing basketball, and so far all the players have received recruiting letters from several schools. The scouts have also said that it will require uncommonly hard work for any of the boys on the team other than Felipe to ascend to the N.B.A.
Every so often, scouts’ forecasts are wrong. Some phenomenal high-school players get injured or lazy or fat or drug-addled or bored, or simply level off and then vanish from the sport, and, by the same token, a player of no particular reputation will once in a while emerge from out of nowhere and succeed. That was the case with the N.B.A. all-stars Karl Malone and Charles Barkley, who both played through high school in obscurity; but most other N.B.A. players were standouts starting in their early teens. Most people who follow high-school basketball teams that are filled with kids from poor families and rough neighborhoods encourage the kids to put basketball in perspective, to view it not as a catapult into some fabulous, famous life but as something practical — a way to get out, to get an education, to learn the way around a different, better world. The simple fact that only one in a million people in this country will ever play for the N.B.A. is often pointed out to the kids, but that still doesn’t seem to stop them from dreaming.
Being told that you might be that one person in a million would deform many people’s characters, but it has not made Felipe cynical or overly interested in himself. In fact, his blitheness can be almost unnerving. One evening when we were together, I watched him walk past a drug deal on 125th Street and step off the curb into traffic, and then he whiled away an hour in a fast-food restaurant where several ragged, hostile people repeatedly pestered him for change. He hates getting hurt on the court, but out in the world he is not very careful with himself. When you are around him, you can’t help feeling that he is a boy whose body is a savings account, and it is one that is uninsured. But being around him is also to be transported by his nonchalant confidence about luck — namely, that it happens because it happens, and that it will happen for Felipe, because things are meant to go his way. This winter, he and the Rice Raiders were in Las Vegas playing in a tournament. One evening, a few of them went into a casino and attached themselves to the slot machines. Felipe’s first quarter won him a hundred quarters. Everyone told him to stop while he was ahead, but he continued. “I wanted to play,” he says. “I thought, I had nothing before I started, now I have something, so I might as well play. So I put some more quarters in, and — oh, my goodness! — I won twelve hundred more quarters. What can I say?”
At three o’clock one afternoon this winter, I went over to the high school to watch Felipe and the Rice team practice. I hadn’t met Felipe before that afternoon, but I had heard a lot about him from friends who follow high-school basketball. As it happens, Felipe’s reputation often precedes him. Before he moved to this country, he was living in Santiago, in the Dominican Republic. The Lopez family had been leaving the Dominican Republic in installments for thirty years. A grandmother had moved to New York in the sixties, followed by Felipe’s father in 1982, and then, in 1986, by his mother and Anthony. For three years, Felipe stayed in the Dominican Republic with another older brother, Anderson, and his sister, Sayonara. At age eight, he started playing basketball in provincial leagues, sometimes being bumped up to older age groups because he was so good. He already had a following. “I would hear from a lot of Dominicans about how good he was getting,” Anthony says now. “It made me curious. When I left him in the Dominican Republic, he was just a little kid who I would boss around. He was my — you know, my delivery guy.” When more visas were obtained, in 1989, Felipe and Sayonara moved to New York. Anthony took Felipe to a playground near the family’s apartment and challenged him one-on-one, decided that the rumors were true, and then took him to try out for the Gauchos. Lou d’Almeida says that people were already talking about Felipe by then. Many high-school coaches had intelligence on Felipe by the time he started school. Lou DeMello first saw him in a citywide tournament for junior-high players. Felipe was in the Midget Division. “He looked like a man among boys,” DeMello says now. “If I could have, I would have taken him then and started him then on the Rice varsity. I swear to God. At the time, he was in eighth grade.”
Rice High School is a small all-boys Catholic school, which was founded in 1938 and is run by the Congregation of Christian Brothers. It is the only Catholic high school still open in Harlem. Currently, it has about four hundred students. Tuition is two thousand dollars a year, which many of the students can afford only with the help of scholarship money from private sponsors, including some basketball fans. At school, students have to wear a tie, real trousers, and real shoes, not sneakers. There is also a prohibition against beepers. The school is in a chunky brick building with a tiny, blind entrance on 124th Street, close to some Chinese luncheonettes, some crack dealers, and some windswept vacant tenements. A lot of unregulated commerce is conducted on the sidewalks nearby, and last year a business dispute in an alley across from the school was resolved with semi-automatic weapons, but the building itself emanates gravity and calm. Inside, it is frayed but sturdy and pleasant. There is an elevator, but it often isn’t working; the gym, which occupies most of the top two floors of the school, is essentially a sixth-floor walkup. The basketball court is only fifty-five feet long instead of the usual ninety-four, and the walls are less than a foot away from the sidelines. It would qualify as regulation-size in Lilliput. Rice has to play its games in a borrowed gym — usually the Gauchos’ facility, in the Bronx.
At the time Coach DeMello first heard about Felipe Lopez, the Rice Raiders had a win-loss record of eight and thirteen, tattered ten-year-old uniforms, and an inferiority complex. Catholic League basketball in New York City is a particularly bad place for any of these. Since the early eighties, the Catholic schools in New York have had ferocious rivalries, fancy shoes and uniforms from friendly sporting-goods companies, and most of the best players in the city. College teams and the N.B.A. are loaded with New York City Catholic League alumni: Jamal Mashburn, now at Kentucky, attended Cardinal Hayes; the Nets’ Kenny Anderson and the Houston Rockets’ Kenny Smith went to Archbishop Molloy; the Pacers’ Malik Sealy, Syracuse’s Adrian Autry, and North Carolina’s Brian Reese all went to St. Nicholas of Tolentine; the Pistons’ Olden Polynice attended All Hallows; Chris Mullin, of Golden State, went to Xaverian; Mark Jackson, now of the Clippers, went to Bishop Loughlin. Rice had won the city Catholic-school championship in 1966 and proceeded to become steadily undistinguished over the next few decades. Four years ago, Lou DeMello took over as head coach. First, he persuaded Nike — and later Reebok and Converse — to donate shoes and uniforms to the team. Then he started scouting Midget Division players who might have a future at Rice. The Gaucho coaches have a cordial relationship with DeMello and began pointing players like Felipe his way. Last year, the Rice Raiders reached the finals of the city championship. This year, they are ranked in the top twenty high schools nationally — the first time they have been ranked there for twenty-seven years.
Coach DeMello is short and trim, and has bright eyes and a big mustache and an air of uncommon intensity, like someone who is just about to sneeze. His usual attire consists of nylon warmup suits that are very generously sized. The first time I saw him in street clothes, he looked as if someone had let his air out. He speaks with a New York accent, but in fact he was born in Brazil, and played soccer there. His motivational specialty is the crisp reprobation wrapped around a sweet hint of redemptive possibility — stick before carrot. When addressing the team, he is prone to mantra-like repetitions of his maxims, as in “Listen up. Listen up. I want you to go with your body. Go with your body. Go with your body. I want you to keep your foot in the paint. Your foot in the paint. Your foot in the paint. In the paint. And put the ball on the floor. The ball on the floor. On the floor.”
This particular afternoon, Coach DeMello was especially hypnotic. The team was getting ready for its first out-of-town tournament of the year, the Charm City/Big Apple Challenge, in Baltimore, which would be played in the Baltimore Arena and televised on a cable channel. The Raiders would be facing Baltimore Southern High School, one of the best teams in the area. When I arrived at the Rice gym, the Raiders had been scrimmaging for an hour. Now, during a break, Coach DeMello was chanting strategy. “You guys are ina funk,” he said. Someone dropped the ball, and it made an elastic poing! sound and rolled to the wall. “Gerald, hold the ball,” DeMello went on. He clasped his hands behind his back. “Hold the ball. O.K. You guys are in a funk. You got to get your head in the game. Your head in the game. We’re going up against a serious team in Baltimore. They do a hell of a job on help. A hell of a job. A. Hell. Of. A. Job. We need leaders on the floor. Leaders on the floor. All we want to do is contain. Contain. Contain. So you better hit the boards. Hit the boards. The boards.”
Everyone nodded. The Rice Raiders are Felipe, Reggie Freeman, Yves Jean, Gerald Cox, Melvin McKey, Scientific Mapp, Gary Saunders, Gil Eagan, Kojo Lockhart, Rodney Jones, Robert Johnson, and Jamal Livingston. Melvin, the point guard, is usually called Ziggy. Jamal, the center, is known as Stretch. Gerald, who also plays center, is known as G-Money. Scientific, the reserve point guard, is known as Science. All of them are known, familiarly, as B, which is short for “bro,” which is short for “brother.” During practice, they are solemn and focussed. During a game, they are ardent and intense, as if their lives depended on it. Before and after each game, they stand in a circle, make a stack of their right hands, and shout, “One, two, three, Rice! Four, five, six, family!”
Most of the Raiders live in the Bronx or upper Manhattan. Once, after a game, I rode in the van with an assistant coach as he dropped the team members off at their homes. A few of them lived in plain, solid-looking housing projects and some in walkups that, at least from the outside, looked bleak. No one lived in a very nice building. Some of the kids have families that come to all their games and monitor their schoolwork; some have families that have fallen apart. Six of the twelve live with only their mothers. Ziggy lives with his uncle, and the five others have a mother and a father at home. Each of them has at least one person somewhere in his life who arranges to send him to attend a disciplined and serious-minded parochial school. Sometimes it’s not a parent; the Gauchos, for instance, send a number of basketball players to school. The coaches and teachers I met at Rice are white. Most of the teachers are Catholic brothers. The basketball team is all black, and none of its members are Catholic, although Gary told me once that he was thinking of converting, because “being Catholic seems like a pretty cool thing.” There is currently a debate in the Catholic Church about financing schools that used to have Catholic students from the surrounding parish but are now largely black and non-Catholic, their purpose having shifted, along with neighborhood demographics, from one of service to the Church to one of contribution to the inner city. The debate may also have a flip side. I had heard that for a time one player’s father, a devout Muslim, was unhappy that his son was being coached by a white man. But Coach DeMello resisted being drawn into an argument about something no one on the team ever paid attention to, and the crisis eventually passed. I didn’t think of race very often while I spent time with the team. I thought more about winning and losing, and about how your life could be transformed from one to the other if you happened to be good at a game.
The seniors on the team are Yves Jean, Gerald Cox, and Reggie Freeman. Yves has signed a letter of intent to go to Pitt-Johnstown, which is a Division Two school; Gerald and Reggie are going to the University of South Carolina and the University of Texas, respectively, which are both in Division One. Yves grew up in Lake Placid. He was more fluent in ice fishing than in basketball when he moved to New York, but he is big and strong and has learned the game well enough, even as a second language. Usually, he looks pleasantly amazed when he makes a successful play. Gerald and Reggie are handsome, graceful players who would have been bigger stars this year if it weren’t for Felipe. Gerald is dimpled and droll and flirtatious. Reggie has a long, smooth poker face and consummate cool. At times, he looks rigid with submerged disappointment. I remember Coach DeMello’s telling me that when Reggie was a sophomore he was waiting patiently for Jerry McCullough, then the senior star, to leave for college, so that at last he would be the team’s main man. Then Felipe came. Reggie and Felipe now have a polite rapport that fits together like latticework over their rivalry.
The team is a changeable entity. Some of the kids have bounced on and off the squad because of their grades. One of the players has had recurring legal problems. The girlfriend of another one had a baby last year, and because of that he missed so much school that for some time he wasn’t allowed to play on the team. When I first started hanging around with the Raiders, Rodney Jones wasn’t on the roster, having had discipline problems and some academic troubles. Sometimes the boys get sick of each other. They practice together almost every day for several hours; they travel together to games and tournaments, which can sometimes last as long as two weeks; and they see each other all day in classrooms, at the Gaucho gym, and on the street. Usually, they have an easy camaraderie. During the other times, as soon as they are done with practice they quickly head their own ways.
“Are you guys listening to me? Are you listening?” DeMello was saying. He was now joined by Bobby Gonzalez, an assistant coach, who was nodding and murmuring “Uh-huh” after everything he said. Gonzalez handed DeMello a basketball. DeMello curled it to his left side, and then held his right hand up, one finger in the air, as if he were checking wind direction. “One more thing. One more thing. If there’s one player you guys want to be looking up to right now, I’ll tell you who it is.”
“Uh-huh,” Bobby Gonzalez said.
“That guy is Reggie Freeman. Reggie Freeman.” No expression crossed Reggie’s face. Felipe, who was standing on the other side of the circle, flexed his neck, rotated his shoulders, and then stood still, a peaceful expression on his face. “Reggie is the most unselfish player here. He is the most unselfish. I want you to remember that. He’s grown a lot. That’s who you should be looking at. O.K.”
DeMello bounced the ball hard, signalling the end of practice. The boys circled and counted: “One, two, three, Rice! Four, five, six, family!” They straggled out of the gym, talking in small groups.
“I never been to Baltimore.”
“Let me ask you something. You think Larry Bird’s a millionaire?”
“Larry Bird? I don’t know. A millionaire. Magic’s a millionaire.”
“Magic’s a millionaire, and he didn’t have fifty-nine cents to buy himself a little hat and now he’s going to die. The man’s stupid.”
“I don’t know if Larry Bird’s a millionaire. I do know he’s never been to Harlem, and he’s never done the Electric Slide.”
Felipe on his development as a player:
“Back in my country, I was just a little guy. I tried to dunk, but I couldn’t. I tried and I tried. Then, one day, I dunked. Oh, my goodness. Three months later, I was dunking everything, every way — with two hands, backwards, backwards with two hands. I can do a three-sixty dunk. It’s easy. You know, you jump up backwards with the ball and then spin around while you’re in the air — and pow! I’m working all the time on my game. If Coach DeMello says he wants me to work on my ball handling, then I just work at it, work at it, work at it, until it’s right. In basketball, you always are working, even on the things you already know.
“When I come to this country, I was real quiet, because I didn’t speak any English, so all I did was dunk. On the court, playing, I had to learn the words for the plays, but you don’t have to talk, so I was O.K. My coach used his hands to tell me what to do, and then I learned the English words for it. There aren’t too many Spanish kids at school. I know a lot of kids, though. I meet kids from all over the country at tournaments and at summer camps. If you do something good, then you start meeting people, even if you don’t want to. Sometimes it’s bouncing in my head that people are talking about me, saying good things, and that some people are talking about me and saying bad things, saying, like, ‘Oh, he thinks he’s all that,’ but that’s life. That’s life. I don’t like when it’s bouncing in my head, but I just do what I’m supposed to do. I’m quick. I broke the record for the fifty-yard dash when I was in junior high school — I did it in five point two seconds, when the record was five point five seconds. I also got the long-jump record. It feels natural when I do these things. In basketball, I like to handle the ball and make the decisions. I can play the big people, because of my quickness. But I got to concentrate or the ball will go away from me. At basketball camp, I’m always the craziest guy — people always are walking around saying, ‘Hey, who’s that Dominican clown?’ But on the court I don’t do any fooling around. I got to show what I got.
“In life, I don’t worry about myself. My brother will run defense for me. I got my family. Some kids here, I see them do drugs, messing around, wasting everything, and I see the druggies out on the street, and I just, I don’t know, I don’t understand it. That’s not for me. I got a close family, and I got to think about my family, and if I can do something that will be good for my whole family, then I got to do it. I think about my country a lot — I want to go there so bad. In Santiago, everyone knows about me and wants to see me play now. If I’m successful, the way everyone talks about that, I’d like a big house there in Santiago, where I could go for a month or two each year and just relax.”
After practice, Felipe and I walked down 125th Street in a cold rain. First, he bought new headphones for his tape player from a Ghanaian street peddler, and then we stopped at Kentucky Fried Chicken to eat a pre-dinner dinner before heading home. He was dressed in his school clothes — a multicolored striped shirt, a purple-and-blue flowered tie, and pleated, topstitched baggy black cotton pants — and had on a Negro League baseball cap, which he was wearing sideways and at a jaunty angle. In his book bag were some new black Reebok pump basketball shoes; everyone on the team had been given a pair for the Baltimore tournament. Felipe was in a relaxed mood. He has travelled to and played in big tournaments so often that he now takes them in stride. He has become something of a tournament connoisseur. One of his favorite places in the world is southern France, where he played last spring with the Gauchos. He liked the weather and the countryside and the fact that by the end of the tour French villagers were crowding into the gyms and chanting his name. This particular evening, he was also feeling pleased that he had finished most of the homework he needed to do before leaving for Baltimore, which consisted of writing an essay for American history on Brown v. Board of Education and the Fifteenth Amendment, preparing an annotated periodic table of the elements, and writing two poems for his Spanish class.
One of his poems was called “Los Dientes de Mi Abuela,” which translates as “The Teeth of My Grandmother.” Sitting in Kentucky Fried Chicken, he read it to me: ” ‘Conservando la naturaleza se ve en aquella mesa los dientes de mi abuela, que los tenia guardados para Navidad.'” He looked up from his notebook and gestured with a chicken wing. “This is about an old grandmother who is saving her special teeth for Christmas. In my country, it’s funny, old people will go around without their teeth. So in the poem the grandmother is saving the teeth for Christmas, when she’ll be eating a big dinner. The teeth are brilliant and shiny. Then she gets impatient and uses them to eat a turkey at Thanksgiving — ‘GRRRT . . . suena la mordida de la abuela al pavo.’ ” The other poem Felipe had written was about a man about to enter prison or some other gloomy passage in his life. It is called “La Primera y ‘Ultima Vez . . .” As he began reading it, an argument broke out in front of the restaurant between a middle-aged woman in a cream-colored suit and two little boys who were there on their own. First, the boys were just sassy, and then they began yelling that the woman was a crack addict. She balled up a napkin and threw it at them, shouting, “Why don’t you respect your elders? What are you doing out at night all alone? Why don’t you get your asses home and watch television or read a fucking book?” Felipe kept reciting his poem, raising his voice over the commotion. When he finished, he said, “It’s a sadder poem than the one about the grandmother. I like writing poems. In school, I like to write if it’s in Spanish, and I like to draw, and I like math. I’m good at math. I like numbers. How do I write the poems? I don’t know how. They just come to me.”
Done with dinner, we went back out onto 125th Street and caught a cab up to Felipe’s apartment. The apartment was in a brick walkup, on a block with half a playground, a bodega, some unclaimed auto parts, and the depopulated stillness of urban decay. Walking up the four flights to the apartment, we passed an unchaperoned German shepherd napping in the vestibule, a stack of discarded Chinese menus, and someone’s garbage, which had toppled over in a doorway. Felipe took the stairs three at a time. He used to dribble up and down the staircase until the neighbors complained that it was driving them crazy. For that reason and many others, the Lopezes were looking forward to moving as soon as they possibly could. Ironically, Felipe has been discouraged from playing in Puerto Rico this summer, on the ground that the basketball league there has a reputation for attracting prostitutes and drug use, when the fact is that spending the summer in Puerto Rico would help him get out of a neighborhood that attracts prostitutes and drug use.
One reason I decided to go home with Felipe was that I thought it might reveal something I hadn’t yet seen in him — impatience or embarrassment at living a very humble life when he has been assured that such a rich and celebrated one is virtually in his grasp. That turned out to be not at all the case. In fact, Felipe loves to have people come over to his apartment. That night, he had invited Coach DeMello and his tutor, Maura Beattie, to drop by. When we arrived, they were already there. So were Mrs. Lopez; Felipe’s brother Anderson, who moved to this country last year; Anderson’s girlfriend, Nancy; Anthony; and Felipe’s father. Felipe’s sister, Sayonara, was expected as soon as she was through with a meeting at church. The Lopezes are an exceptionally good-looking and unusually large-scale family. Felipe’s father, a construction laborer, is broad-chested, dignified, and well over six feet tall. His mother, Carmen, who works in the Garment District, is leggy and vigorous. She competed in track and volleyball as a girl in the Dominican Republic. That night, she was wearing a long flowered dress and black Reeboks. In the Dominican Republic, the Lopezes had a middle-class life. In this country, that life did not change so much as compress. All its hallmarks — Luis’s exacting discipline, Carmen’s piety, the children’s sense of honor and obligation — came over intact, and then intensified in contrast to the disorder of the neighborhood they found themselves in.
The Lopez apartment was a warren of tiny dark rooms. One wall in the living room was covered with plaques Felipe had won — among them the Parade All-American High School Boys Award, the Five-Star Basketball Camp Most Promising Player, and the Ben Wilson Memorial Award for Most Valuable Player at ABCD Basketball Camp — and one corner of the room was filled by an old broken television set with what looked like a hundred basketball trophies on top. There was also a new television set, a videocassette recorder, a shelving unit, a huge sofa, a huge easy chair, a huge coffee table, some pretty folk-craft decorations from the Dominican Republic, some occasional tables, big billowy curtains, several floor lamps, and a life-size freestanding cardboard cutout of Michael Jordan. It was an exuberant-looking place. It was also possibly the most crowded place I’d ever been in. The television was tuned to a Spanish soap opera when we walked in, and Maura Beattie and Coach DeMello, were sitting beside it, ignoring the show and eating pizza. The Michael Jordan cutout was propped up behind DeMello, blocking the back door. Anderson and Nancy were squeezed together on the couch, looking at one of Felipe’s scrapbooks, and Anthony was pacing around the room and talking to his father, who was reclined in the easy chair. Felipe said hello to his mother and they chatted for a minute in Spanish, and then she led him to a seat at the kitchen table and set a stockpot in front of him that was filled with chicken stew. There seemed to be a lot of people coming and going, and the conversation perked along:
DeMello: “I’ll never forget when Anthony brought Felipe to Rice. He couldn’t speak a word of English. I thought, How on earth is this kid going to take the entrance exams? Maura, do you remember that?”
Ms. Beattie: “I’m a math teacher. I’m not an English tutor. But I figured this would be something interesting to do. I didn’t want the Lopezes to realize I wasn’t really a tutor.”
Anthony, walking through the kitchen: “Felipe, are you ready for tomorrow? You got your books with you? You planning to play?”
Nancy, translating for Carmen Lopez: “She says Felipe would rather play than eat. Otherwise, he don’t give her no torment.”
DeMello: “You should see the tape of the commercial Felipe and Robert Johnson did for Nintendo. They had a lot of fun, a lot of fun. Someone gave them bad advice, though, and it almost cost Felipe his eligibility. He turned down the money, and the commercial has to stop playing when he gets into college.”
Ms. Beattie: “You want more pizza? Should we get more pizza? Felipe, would you eat more? He doesn’t eat. I don’t think he eats.”
Nancy: “Would you look at this, all these trophies! Felipe, you got all these trophies?”
Anderson, to Nancy: “One of those is mine. Yeah, really. Nancy, look in the middle of the table and you’ll find mine.”
Anthony: “Everything everybody tells you is so beautiful — you know, be on TV, score thirty points, be the M.V.P., have the fame, all right — but you got to pay attention. There are a lot of rules. The N.C.A.A. rule is that no coaches can talk to him while he’s a junior. They’re willing, they’re dying to talk to him, but that’s not going to happen. When he’s ready, we’ll meet and talk and see. I had these dreams to be a great player, and I had my ankle broken, so it was all over for me. Felipe is my chance to see it happen for someone in my family, but it’s going to happen the right way.”
Felipe, coming in from the kitchen with Sayonara, just back from church: “Mommy, hey, Mommy, didn’t I grow all these inches over here? One day, remember, I went to my closet and found these little pants and I said, ‘Mommy, whose pants are these?’ They were only this big — just little short pants — and she said, ‘Felipe, those are your pants!’ I couldn’t believe it! I couldn’t believe I ever wore those pants! I just looked at them and thought, Oh, my goodness.”
DeMello: “Hey, Felipe, are you ready for tomorrow? Because anyone who isn’t ready with their homework done, Brother is going to hear about it, and we’re not going to be going to any other tournaments. Are you ready?”
Felipe: “DeMello, I got one thing I got to do tomorrow. I got to type my essay.”
Sayonara: “Felipe, I think you’re better at basketball than at typing.”
Nancy, translating for Carmen Lopez: “She says he has to do the essay. She says they’re so proud of him, and with the help of God he’ll go to the top, he’ll be a great dunker. That’s what she imagines for him in five years. For now, though, they don’t soup him up. He has to do right. They still walk to Felipe — they’re not running.”
We drove to Baltimore the next night in a car rented by the tournament sponsors and a beat-up van used by the school. The tournament sponsors were also providing rooms for the whole team in a posh hotel downtown. The following day, after breakfast, the Raiders went for a pregame practice. The Baltimore Arena is big and windy, and it had a depressing effect on the team. They ran some bumbling fast-break drills and then had shooting practice for forty-five minutes, banging the balls against the rim. The clanking sound floated up and away into the empty stands. Coach DeMello called them together toward the end of practice. “I don’t know where you guys are,” he said. “I don’t know where you are. You got to get your heads here by tonight. By. Tonight. This team, this team is going to give us something. They’ve got No. 53, he’s a beef, he’s six-five. Six. Five. And there’s a fast point guard. He looks really young, he’s probably a sophomore, but he does a hell of a job on help. They don’t gamble. They get a lot of shots off. They help and recover.” Pause. “Help and recover. Help and recover. And, Felipe, I saw you start to drop your head because you missed some shots. I don’t want to see that. I want to see you lift your head and go on. All right, let’s head out. I want everybody to relax and be dressed and in my room at 6 p. m., understand? Understand? O.K. O.K.”
The arena is near Inner Harbor, a fancy shopping development in downtown Baltimore, so everybody walked over there to get some pizza and kill time. Twelve tall black boys, wearing bright yellow-and-green warmups, the pants hanging low and almost sliding off their hips, made for a sight that was probably not usual at Inner Harbor. Shoppers were executing pick-and-rolls to avoid them. In the mall, there were dozens of nice stores open, but the boys seemed reluctant to go into them. We ended up in a sporting-goods shop that specialized in clothes and accessories with college- and professional-team logos. Felipe disappeared down one of the rows. Kojo posted up in front of a rack of jackets, took two down, looked at the price tags, and then put them back. Reggie and Gerald found hats featuring their future colleges. “Yo, I like this one,” Gerald said. “It’s fly, but what I really want is a fitted Carolina hat. They only have the unfitted kind.”
Reggie glanced at him and then said, “Why don’t you wait till you get to Carolina, man? They going to have everything you want, man, just wait.”
“I don’t want to wait.” Gerald put on an unfitted hat — the kind with an adjustable strap across the back — and flipped the brim back. Gary Saunders came over and looked at him. Gary is a sophomore. An air of peace or woe seems to form a bumper around him. Some people think he will eventually be as good as Felipe, or even better. He pulled Gerald’s brim and then rocked back on his heels and said, sadly, “I wish I had a hat head. I can’t wear a hat. I look dumb in a hat.” Felipe walked by, wearing three hats, with each brim pointing in a different direction. He was smiling like a madman. He admired himself in the mirror and then took the hats off. “I’ve had enough,” he said to no one in particular. “Now I’m going to my room.”
Some things at the tournament did not bode well. For instance, the program listed the team as “Rice, Bronx, N. Y.” instead of placing the school in Manhattan. Also, Jamal Livingston had decided to shave his head during the afternoon, and the razor broke after he had finished only one hemisphere. The resulting raggedy hairdo made him look like a crazy person. He was so unhappy about it that he told Coach DeMello he wouldn’t play, but Science finally persuaded him, saying, “Stretch, you look cool, man. You’re down with the heavy-metal crowd now.” The Raiders got their first look at the Southern players as they warmed up. They were big kids, and they looked meaty, heavy-footed, and mean. Damon Cason, the point guard DeMello had warned the Raiders about, had powerful shoulders and a taut body and a merciless look on his face. Beside him, Felipe looked wispy and hipless. Warming up, he was silent and unsmiling. The fans were loud and found much to amuse them. When Jamal stepped onto the court, they began chanting “Haircut! Haircut! Haircut!” and then switched to a chant of “Rice-A-Roni!” and then back to “Haircut!” every time Jamal took a shot.
The game begins, and in the opening moments I focus only on Felipe. Rice wins the tap, but Southern scores nine quick points and looks ready to score more. Three Southern players are guarding Felipe. They struggle after him on the fast breaks, but he slips by and, still skimming along, makes a driving lay-up from the right. Then a fast-break lay-up, off a snappy pass from Ziggy. Then, thirty-two seconds later, a driving lay-up from the left side. The guards are looking flustered and clumsy. Felipe gets a rebound, passes to Reggie, gets the ball back, and then suddenly he drifts upward, over the court, over the other boys, toward the basket, legs scissored, wrists cocked, head tilted, and in that instant he looks totally serene. Right before he dunks the ball, I have the sensation that the arena is silent, but, of course, it isn’t; it’s just that as soon as he slams the ball down there is a crack of applause and laughter, which makes the instant preceding it seem, by contrast, like a vacuum of sound, a little quiet hole in space.
The final score is Rice 64, Southern 42. Leaving the floor, Felipe is greeted by some of the white men, who have come down to Baltimore to watch his game. One of them comments on how well he played and wants to know what he did all afternoon to prepare. Felipe is mopping his face with a towel. He folds it up and then says, “Oh, my goodness, I didn’t do much of anything. I sat in my room and watched ‘Popeye’ on television and listened to merengue music. I just felt good today.”
The last time I spent with the team was the night before they were to leave on a trip to two tournaments — the Iolani Classic, in Honolulu, and the Holiday Prep Classic, in Las Vegas. The flight to Hawaii was so early that Coach DeMello decided to have the boys sleep at the school. After practice, they spent a few hours doing homework and then ordered in pizzas. Reggie had brought a big radio from home and set it up under a crucifix on the second floor, tuned to a station playing corny soul ballads. Coach DeMello had set up a video player and lent the team his N.B.A.-highlight tapes. “You guys going to keep it together up here?” he said. “Let’s keep it together up here.”
One of them yelled out, “Hey, Coach, I got to ask you something. Are there any girls in Hawaii our age?”
Someone told Reggie to turn off the radio, because the music was awful.
Reggie said, “Bro, you bugging.”
“It’s stupid, man. Find something better.”
“Get your own radio, bro. Then you can be the d. j.”
“Reggie Freeman’s got a problem.”
“Hey, Gary, where’d you get that shirt?”
“Macy’s! What, you rich or something?”
“Put on the tape. I want to see Bird and Magic play.”
“Bird’s a white guy.”
Gerald turned on the video player and put in the tape.
“Bird could be a purple guy, bro. He’s got a game.”
“Here’s Magic. This is the gospel, B, so you better listen up.”
They sat in rapt attention, replaying some of the better sections and reciting the play-by-play along with the announcer, Marv Albert. After a few minutes, I realized that Felipe wasn’t sitting with us, so I wandered down the hall, looking for him. Except for the vestibule where the boys were camping, the school was still and empty. I went upstairs to the gym. One window was broken, and a shaft of light from outside was shooting in. Someone’s jersey was looped over the back of a chair in the corner, and it flapped in the night breeze. I walked from one end of the court to the other. My footsteps sounded rubbery and loud on the hardwood. After a moment, I heard a grinding in the hallway, so I walked back across the court and out to the hall. The elevator door opened, and there was Felipe, his shirttail hanging down, his hat on backward, his hand on the controls.
“Were you looking for me?”
“I don’t want to hang with the guys.” He started to let the door slide shut, then pushed it open and leaned against it, grinning. “I just want to fool around. I don’t want anyone to find me. I know what I got to do when we get to Hawaii. I just want to go up and down tonight.”
Early the next morning, they left for Hawaii. They had a luau for Christmas, won three out of four games, flew to Las Vegas, ate too much casino food, again won three out of four games, and won a lot of quarters in the slot machines. The blustery, bright day they got back to New York, they celebrated Felipe Lopez’s eighteenth birthday.
The rest of the season was a breeze until February, when Gil, Jamal, Kojo, and Rodney were taken off the team on account of bad grades. Still, going into the city Catholic-school championship, the Raiders had a record of nineteen and four. They then played St. Francis and won, 72-54, to get to the quarter-finals, and then beat Molloy, 46-36, to advance to the next round. On a cold night last week, they played Monsignor McClancy and lost in the last few minutes, 39-36, and so their season came to a close. The white men were following Felipe in every game. He had been playing so well and so steadily for the last few months that it now was as if some mystery had lifted off him and he was already inhabiting the next part of his life, in which he gets on with the business of making the most of his talent and polishing his game. In the meantime, the white men started taking note of a few young comers, like Gary Saunders, and also some skinny wisp of a kid at Alexander Burger Junior High. He’s only an eighth grader, but he already dunks. They think he’s worth watching. What they say is that he might be another Felipe someday.
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